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Innovation Academy ignites groundswell

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Paloma Mexica, left, and Haydn Jones, helped launch Crafted, a student-run startup that gathers waste grain from local breweries and turns it into fresh-made breads. (COURTESY OF CRAFTED)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The University of New Mexico’s Innovation Academy has ignited a groundswell of student entrepreneurship in Albuquerque, much more so than UNM officials ever imagined when they launched the program in fall 2015.

As of June 1, nearly 600 students had signed up to directly participate in the academy, which provides direct experience and real-world skills in entrepreneurship, critical thinking and problem-solving. That’s about 20 times more participation than the modest 15 students per semester, or 30 active participants by the second year, that the university had set as initial goals, academy director Rob DelCampo said.

Dozens of academy participants are now pursuing startup ideas, individually and collectively, with 14 student-run businesses already up and operating, according to the program’s new impact report for the 2016-2017 academic year.

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“We’ve come so far so fast,” DelCampo said. “It’s like every day something new is emerging. You give students a little support and a place to hang their hat, and things just kind of explode.”

The academy grew out of UNM’s joint efforts with public and private partners to build the Innovate ABQ research-and-development zone at Central and Broadway Downtown. The academy aims to draw students into the innovation district as up-and-coming entrepreneurs and professionals who can work with scientists, researchers and investors to turn the heart of Albuquerque into a bustling center of high-tech startup activity.

The academy will move to Innovate ABQ in August, when the six-story Rainforest Building opens there. The academy will operate on the ground floor, alongside tech-transfer programs run by UNM and other research institutions.

“Colocation at the site is a centerpiece of Innovate ABQ,” DelCampo said. “It will provide a venue for students to work in a dedicated space with scientists, businesspeople and professionals as they innovate, invent and create.”

The program already offers nearly a dozen classes, such as a core course where students learn business basics and build their own startup during the semester, and another that offers students semester-long internships at established startups.

More are coming in the fall, including a creative economy course taught by the Creative Startups accelerator, and an eight-week Tech Navigator Challenge, in which student teams will design business plans to take real technologies from UNM and some national laboratories to market.

To date, 58 students have earned college credit through the courses. Others have attended workshops, received mentoring and pitched in UNM-sponsored startup competitions.

One new student-run course gathered 20 students into collective brain-storming sessions this past spring to share startup ideas and build a business together. It culminated in Crafted, a company that now gathers waste grain from local breweries and turns it into fresh-baked bread for retail at the breweries.

“This isn’t theory of marketing or sales,” said Trace Rucarean, who led the class and helped launch Crafted. “You get out in the real world for 16 weeks with students from different backgrounds and see what happens. Creative ideas start bouncing around.”

 


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